Heather Taylor is an award-winning writer, director and founder of Red on Black Productions. Stitched, her most recent award winning short, is currently playing festivals around the world. Follow Heather’s website, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter: @HeatherATaylor
There are three versions of a film: the one you write, the one you direct, and the one you edit. When you are in screenwriter mode, you don’t imagine rewriting as you paint the picture of the perfect film in your head. You always have the right budget, and the right cast and crew. Everything goes perfectly to plan. But once you get into the directors chair, things begin to change. What works so magically on paper, doesn’t always work on the day.
I created this list of four major reasons rewriting happens when in the production stage. I drew from my own experience and those of some indie filmmakers I work with to give you some examples of the different ways your script might change as you move from the page to the set.
Rewriting for the budget
Even if you are writing a film with a lower budget in mind, there are inevitably some things that change. Multiple locations add to your budget – not only in location fees but in the number of shoot days needed in your schedule. You need to account for set up time and travel, which makes that one scene shoot in your favorite deli more expensive than it’s worth.
All those extra characters with one-liners also add up. Same goes for your costume and set choices (period pieces aren’t that cheap!). And if you decide to shoot a lot in moving cars? This always adds to the balance sheet.
You’ll discover this quickly during pre-production. As you break down your script and figure out how many days you need to shoot it, reality sets in. This is when you pull apart your carefully crafted script finding where to cut that person, or place, or specialty item and rewriting accordingly.
For writer/ director Bat-Sheva Guez, when she filmed her award-winning short film Behind the Wall, she had to consider what to cut because of budget reasons. They couldn’t afford some of the set pieces and in one instance, the ceiling was too low to contain the wall flat they wanted to bring in, so they improvised as they couldn’t afford a bigger space.
On their last shooting night, that ever-familiar threat to all filmmakers dawned on them – were they going to “make their day”? There was an intense and fast-paced scene in the middle of the film that was supposed to crescendo and then peak in a way that adds five more setups to their day.
Bat-Sheva made a quick call and cut them all – culling 1.5 pages from their to-do list. Instead of a crescendo, she let the scene stop abruptly. She then quickly wrote a new scene to fill the gap, and presto! Their new film looked different but they heightened the drama, added suspense, and more importantly, it allowed them to finish that day.
Rewriting for your actors
During the casting process, there are a number of choices you make. Though you think you know what you want, it’s good to let the actors surprise you in the casting room.
When I casted my last award-winning short Stitched, I had a tight short list with two fantastic actresses that could very capably play the lead role. But that choice leaves me with very different films. One version was more subtle with twists of anger and light intertwining with each other. The other gave me a much more manic and intense character. Both versions would be fantastic but I went with the subtle and rewrote accordingly.
To make this character work to it’s fullest capacity, the script needed to mold to this choice of actor. As we filmed the short all in one shot, we adjusted the length and amount of dialogue to fit with her cadence and how we’d pace the film. This meant a lot of cutting but in the end, the rewrite shaped the dialogue more tightly to the actor. Figuring this out in rehearsals before we started filming created a tight performance. This allowed us to tell the story best suited to the world we created with our cast.
Rewriting for a change on set
You have the perfect plan. You’ve scouted your location. You have the perfect set pieces. You’ve everything in place – and then suddenly you don’t. On the first feature I wrote, The Last Thakur, everything was set in a small village in Bangladesh. When the location was selected a couple months before the shoot date, it was the perfect location for our Bengali Western. But when the team went to film, the village was being demolished.
With only a couple days to spare, the team constructed a new main street. This limited the action to only a couple of “houses” creating a more intimate and claustrophobic environment. What we lost in the village, we gained with shots of the ongoing construction. Long takes of bulldozers pushing dirt foreshadowed the coming change and rebuilding of relationships that thematically weaves its way through the film.
For Catherine Eaton, writer and director of The Sounding, she lost her island location five days before shooting and had to rewrite for an entirely new one. Catherine found the original island in Maine to use for free. But five days out she discovered the gentleman who owned the island was verbally abusive to her Unit Production Manager as she set everything up.
Worried for others on the shoot, they decided to find another island for their production. Suddenly – two days before day one of their shoot – they found one! But now they took less crew, rerouted actors, re-jigged schedules, and re-worked the shot-list (all based on Google Earth!) because they never saw this island in person.
Traveling up a day and a half in advance, Catherine and her DP hiked around the island to re-conceive the film based on what’s there. All twelve miles out to sea.
Some changes made the film stronger than the original script, some were equitable, some were “Hail Marys” that thankfully they pulled off. Because the team did so much work on the written script before production, the re-writing of it during production was aesthetic work, rather than structural. The truth of the story was never at risk of changing or getting lost no matter how much they rewrote or reworked given the completely new location.
Rewriting to make it better, tighter, slicker
There are always a large number of rewrites a writer has to undergo. First to get interest in the film, then after a producer shows interest, and finally when a director comes on board.
For Naomi McDougall-Jones, who wrote and stared in the indie feature Imagine I’m Beautiful, the “bonus” of re-writing her screenplay 52 times before going into production with her director and producers heavily involved, is that the screenplay they ended up going to set with was basically a silver bullet. Every moment and second was worked over and over so the film changed remarkably little (unusually so) from script to set to edit.
For Naomi, the biggest changes really came in the edit. There were a number of little scenes that felt like necessary transitions or interesting moments on the page that ended up feeling like extra padding in the edited film and were ultimately cut.
Having been through that process once, Naomi noticed as she workshopped her new script, Bite Me, that there are things that are necessary to add in at the script stage for people reading the script that won’t be necessary in the film itself.
People tend to sort of skim read scripts. Though a stage direction may be all that’s needed for the shoot, people could quickly read it in the script and miss it, so she’ll add in a line or two of dialogue to make important elements unmissable. This works in “version one” of the film, but in the directed version it’ll be accomplished with just a look or a single shot.
No matter what the film you’re trying to make, it’s never going to be a one and done. So embrace each step of the process and continue to push your film every step along the way.
Get more tips on directing in Bethany Rooney and Mary Lou Belli’s book
Directors Tell the Story: Master the Craft of Television and Film Directing